The bottom line: Positive social relationships are associated with increased memory and happiness.
Thanks to modern-day advances in medicine, the average American’s life expectancy has gone up by nearly 30 years over the last decade. While some seem to flourish in their golden years, more of our elderly than ever are battling dementia. While much time and research have been put into the treatment of this heartbreaking disease, what can be learned from those who are at the opposite end of the spectrum?
Northwestern University has been studying a group of what they call “SuperAgers” for some time now. SuperAgers are defined as adults over the age of 80 with episodic memory ability similar to those in the 50-65 year age group. Prior research from the group has demonstrated differences in the SuperAgers brain, such as increased cortical thickness and slower rates of brain atrophy (or shrinking).
In this study, the SuperAgers well-being was compared to that of their cognitively average for age peers. Before inclusion in the study, all subjects were given both memory and non-memory tests to ensure they qualified. A total of 31 SuperAgers and 19 cognitively average for age adults were included, all over the age of 80. The subjects completed a well-validated psychological well-being questionnaire that assesses six domains of overall well-being. The 42 questions address autonomy, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.
Overall, both groups demonstrated higher than average well-being. The SuperAgers scored similarly to their cognitively average for age peers in almost all of the categories except one; they reported a significantly higher level of positive relations with others. These results suggest that the perception of meaningful and positive social relationships may be an important factor in being a SuperAger and may even have implications in slowing down cognitive decline.
Another study looked at a large cross-sectional sample of adults of all ages, and found a significant positive correlation in the value people put on their friendships and their overall happiness. The same group conducted a longitudinal study over 8 years in adults over the age of 50. They found that support from spouses’, close friends and children were associated with higher subjective well being. On the other hand, strain within friendships seemed to predict more chronic disease.
While the studies mentioned certainly have limitations, including sample size, subjective nature, and the obvious causation vs. correlation argument, it does seem intuitive that having positive social relations can be good for both the mind and the soul. As we focus on our health and happiness, we can be reassured that spending quality time with those we love may pay back in dividends.
- Cook AH, Sridhar J, Ohm D, Rademaker A, Mesulam MM, Weintraub S, et al. Rates of Cortical Atrophy in Adults 80 Years and Older With Superior vs Average Episodic Memory. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association. 2017.317(13):1373–5
- Cook AH, Maher A, Kielb S, Loyer E, Connelley M, Rademaker A, Mesulam MM, et al. Psychological well-being in elderly adults with extraordinary episodic memory. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0186413. 2017.
- Chopik WJ. Associations among relational values, support, health, and well-being across the adult lifespan. Pers Relationship. 2017. 24: 408–422.